Overseas social scientists ‘face real repression’ during research in China
Academics denied visas and access to archives as they conduct fieldwork in the country, international survey finds
About 10 per cent of overseas social scientists during research in China have been pressured by the authorities not to investigate sensitive issues over the last decade, according to a report by two US-based academics.
The authors surveyed more than 560 China specialists working for institutions in various countries and regions and found that one in 10 of the respondents had been “invited to have tea” with Chinese police or security personnel to discuss or for warning about their area of study in the last 10 years.
“[Such] repressive research experiences are a rare but real phenomenon, and collectively present a barrier to the conduct of research in China,” the report said.
In addition, about a quarter of the respondents involved in archival research reported being denied access to documents, and 5 per cent report difficulties obtaining a visa.
The survey offers “the first systematic data on the frequency with which China scholars encounter repressive actions by the Chinese government”, according to the report’s authors, Sheena Chestnut Greitens, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, and Rory Truex, an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University.
The results come amid concerns that Chinese authorities are trying to muffle criticism of China among academics at home and overseas.
Late last year Cambridge University Press (CUP) bowed to pressure from the Chinese authorities and blocked online access on the mainland to more than 300 articles and book reviews published in The China Quarterly, one of the leading journals on Chinese studies. CUP reversed the decision after pressure from the global academic community.
Chinese authorities are also tightening their grip on domestic campuses, declaring wars against “wrongful ideas”.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said the results of the survey were not surprising and could undermine China’s governance.
“But the study has provided a statistical basis on something one knows anecdotally,” Tsang said.
“By restricting academic freedom and effectively blocking research by independent scholars on sensitive topics, the Chinese government is reducing the scope for it to avoid major policy mistakes.”
He said the repression would also effect the policies of other governments.
“If independent scholars avoid research into certain topics, it reduces governments’ understanding of the Chinese situation and is likely to result in poor policymaking,” he said.
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Astrid Nordin, director of the Lancaster University China Centre in Britain, agreed that the findings were not surprising.
Nordin said the boundary defining what was sensitive was not clear, prompting academics to veer away from grey areas and making Chinese censorship “more efficient”.
“I think most academics might self-censor in one way or another. It might be more pronounced for people working in China,” she said.
“If you don’t know where the line is drawn, a lot of people tend to stay further away because they are second-guessing the censorship regime. But we shouldn’t overestimate how systematic and how coherent that regime is.
“I have certainly been denied a visa before, but I have no idea about whether that was because of things I had written. It could be – or not.”
The survey found that researchers working on human rights, Tibet, Taiwan, elite politics, and the Mao period were more likely to be “blacklisted” from travel to China.
In the sample of 562, 12 people investigating these areas said they had been banned from the mainland at some point in the past 10 years.
Another 2 per cent reported having their computer or materials confiscated during field research. Others said their notes had been temporarily confiscated and reviewed by archivists, officials, or police.
The respondents also said their employers gave them little support in dealing with the Chinese authorities.
Additional reporting by Sarah Zheng